Big League Debut: Mitch Keller, Pittsburgh Pirates

The Pirates selected Mitch Keller in the second round of the 2014 draft out of the Iowa high school ranks. Keller emerged as a strong prep prospect when his fastball jumped nearly ten miles an hour between his junior and senior years. The Pirates signed Keller for an over-slot bonus of $1,000,000 to buy him out of his commitment to the University of North Carolina.

Keller was billed as the future head of the Pirates rotation immediately as he entered the organization due to his projectable six-foot-three frame and easy velocity. The fastball was a plus pitch that not only generated plenty of swings and misses from Gulf Coast League bats, but also generated groundballs. The two secondaries both projected as plus pitches, but the curveball was noticeably ahead of the changeup at this time.

A bout of forearm tightness limited him to only 19.2 walk filled innings in 2015, but he’s avoided serious injuries since as he’s made at least 23 starts in every season since. He started the Futures Game in 2018 for the U.S. squad, but overall had an underwhelming season as his walk per nine numbers jumped above 3.00 for the full season. There’s some speculation that Keller was focusing on developing his changeup during this time and throwing the pitch more than he would traditionally like.

Some shine has come off Keller in the last year and a half or so, as he’s no longer viewed as a potential ace. He still is viewed as a long term rotation piece for the Pirates, and the best case seems to be that of a number three starter going forward. He doesn’t miss enough bats and that changeup never developed as much as hoped to be a front line starter, but he does have the frame to be an innings eater in an era where those are becoming more rare. Keller has struck out 56 hitters in 47 innings at Triple-A Indianapolis this season while walking 20. His ERA is currently at 3.45.

The Rankings

Mitch Keller was the 51st ranked prospect on our cumulative top 100 list, and 99th on our fantasy list. Lance Brozdowski ranked Keller as the top prospect in the Pirates organization entering 2019.

The Tools

Fastball (60 Present/60 Future): Keller’s fastball is his best pitch, and it generates plus grades due its velocity and his ability to command the pitch in the strike zone. The fastball sits 94-96 and can touch 99 when he reaches back for more. It’s an easy delivery and the velocity looks almost effortless at times. It has good sink and run, and generates groundballs at a high rate. The pitch is more of a sinker than a true 4-seamer, but he’s working more with a true 4-seamer that he can use up in the zone. He has a heavy sinker/4-seam approach; look for him to throw the pitch around 65-70% of the time.

Curveball (55 Present/60 Future): This is the pitch that Keller relies on to get a majority of his swing and misses. It’s been classified as more of an 11-to-5 break but it does have tremendous depth. It’s an above average pitch with a chance to be plus if the command improves.

Change (40 Present/45 Future): Keller’s changeup never developed as well as hoped, and will still ultimately decide how high he climbs in the rotation. The pitch at present comes out too firm and doesn’t offer enough of a separation in velocity from his fastball as you might hope for, but it does have good sink and is used to get groundballs when it’s going well. Even if it improves to a below average pitch Keller can use it to keep left-handed hitters honest.

Conclusion: Keller made his Major League debut against the Reds in Great American Ballpark on Memorial Day and was greeted quite rudely with a six-run first inning by the Reds. Keller’s command was shaky and he was clearly battling with nerves, but he did settle in as he struck out seven of his last 11 batters faced in his four innings of work. He was sent back to Triple-A after the game but will be back soon. He’s worth rostering in all 15-teamers when he comes back up, and is likely just a streamer in 12-teamers for now.